Cruising in an Event
Ellen rolled the window of the '56 Buick Roadmaster down and stuck her head out. She squinted when the torrid wind hit her face. With her long brown hair flared out behind her Ellen smiled and let her hand roller-coaster into the wind. "How much farther? Will we get there before Reset?"
Steve turned to his teenage daughter and smiled. "It's a long way. It'll be at least one Reset, maybe two. It depends on what we run into."
Ellen flopped back in the seat and the two rode for a few miles in silence until suddenly they were startled by a squawk and a squeal from the radio.
When the static stopped a young voice said, "If the sustenance can take it then you'll find a big glass of winter for each of the camels. Remember, the toaster is never as much as the hair on the frisky so no one is going to tell you about spotlights when a birthday will change everything so, take my word, skip the gutter hype and pulpit. Off the cob, Bob. Time to flow with the sleek..."
When the voice faded to silence, Steve and Ellen turned to each other.
"What the hell was that, Dad?"
"I have no idea," said Steve. "Your grandmother once told me about car radios playing music but nothing like that. It sounded like a little boy talking gibberish."
Ellen jumped with sudden insight. "Maybe it was an Event! Oh my gosh, Dad, it WAS...it was an Event! We've got to go back to that spot on the road! We've never been at an Event that had sound."
Steve scratched at the short hair on his head. "Sorry, sweetheart, we haven't got the time. Besides it might not be there anymore even if it was an Event. We need to get to a town before the Reset."
Ellen slumped in the seat and began to sulk.
"Well, I'm going to put it in the book anyway." She pulled a spiral notebook from the backseat and steadied it on an old brown briefcase she placed in her lap. After opening the notebook to a tabbed page in the middle, Ellen began writing intensely.
"How many is that?" Steve asked.
"One hundred and twelve," said Ellen.
"You always sketch a picture of the Event. What are you going to do this time?"
"I'll draw a picture of the radio. Do you remember anything the kid said?"
Steve thought for a moment. "There was something about camels and hair and birthdays. Oh, he said 'Off the cob, Bob.' None of it made any sense."
Ellen drew her picture and recorded what they could remember about the Event. When she finished she tossed the notebook into the backseat.
As they continued to race down the highway, Steve noticed that his daughter was unconsciously playing with the latches on the briefcase that sat in her lap.
"It's still locked, sweetheart," Steve said with a smile.
"Don't you want to know what's in it?" asked Ellen. "It's driving me crazy. Whatever it is it's not very heavy and I can feel it sliding from side to side in the bag."
"We promised the old man we'd take it to his friends in Austin. A promise is a promise, honey."
"But we didn't promise not to look," said Ellen.
Steve shook his head. "Before he died he gave us this great car and told us to take the briefcase to an address in Austin. We said we'd do it. As for the case, well, just by it being locked implies we're not supposed to look."
Ellen sighed, put the bag on the floorboard, and pushed back in her seat. She stared out the window as the brown and white coupe sped across miles and miles of barren landscape.
"Something's coming up," said Steve.
Ellen sat up and looked along the horizon. In the distance was a large dark shape. "Maybe a big house or building," she said.
As they got closer Steve slowed the Buick. It wasn't a house or building of any kind. It was a huge sheet of metal maybe forty feet tall that was bent and twisted as if a giant had crumpled it up and thrown it away.
Steve pulled the car off the road and parked behind another car. A man and woman stood near the object pointing and talking.
"Another Event," squealed Ellen as she grabbed her notebook and jumped out of the car.
Steve approached the adults who were standing to one side while two children ran around the Event. "Hello, I'm Steve Conway and that's my daughter Ellen."
The young man shook Steve's hand and said, "Bill Ashby and this is my wife, Sue. Those are our kids, Tommy and Grace."
They stood staring at the twisted metal sheet that was a dull gray on one side while the other was mostly bright red with some white stripes.
"What do you make of it?" asked Steve.
"It's a sign," said Bill.
"A sign of what?"
"No." Bill smiled. "Not a sign like an omen. It's a stop sign."
Steve tilted his head and looked at the Event again. "You're right. That's really weird, but most Events are weird."
"Where you headed?" asked Bill.
"Austin," said Steve. "Is there any place up ahead where we can stop before the Reset?"
Bill looked at his watch then said, "There's places in San Angelo. Some of them even have telephones that work. But be careful, that shiny car of yours will attract a lot of attention, if you know what I mean."
"You might be better off just camping out," added Sue.
"I'd rather not," said Steve. "Ellen is sensitive to the Reset. It's not like she has seizures like some people but it makes her dizzy and nauseated. She really needs to be inside when it hits."
"Oh, poor thing," said Sue.
"What's she doing?" Bill asked.
"Drawing a picture of the Event. She keeps a record of all the Events we run into."
"That's a good idea," said Bill. "I should get our kids doing that. Have you seen some really good ones?"
"The best one I've seen was a few years ago in Southern California. It was a big green hexagon and when you stepped on it you started to float about three feet off the ground. It was like swimming in air. I heard it's not there anymore. You know how they come and go."
Bill glanced at his watch again and said, "Yeah and it looks like it's time for us to go or we won't get home before nightfall. Ya'll take care of yourselves and remember what I said about San Angelo."
The couple gathered up their children and loaded them into the car. Bill turned the vehicle around, waved to Steve, and sped off to the north.
"Who was that?" asked Ellen.
Steve shrugged. "Just some people that stopped to look. You finished? We need to hit the road."
It was almost sunset when they booked a room at a motel on the north side of San Angelo. Steve backed the Roadmaster up to the door of their room. Then stepping past old gardening tools and a bag of fertilizer, he quickly moved their gear into the room. He locked the door and partly opened the window's curtains.
"Keep an eye on the car," he said to Ellen. "I'm going to take a shower then you can have the bathroom during Reset."
When Steve finished cleaning up he put on a white tee shirt and jeans, and laced up his worn construction boots.
Ellen was obviously tired but she had kept her vigil at the window.
"Reset is in twenty minutes," Steve told her. "I'm going to be outside until it's over. Are you going to stay in the bathroom?"
"Yeah, I'm going to shower then curl up in a bedroll on the floor. I'll be fine, Dad."
The light from the setting sun had faded and the stars were growing brighter when Steve left the room and hopped onto the hood of the car. Unlike Ellen, Steve liked watching the Reset. It brought back memories of sitting in folding chairs in the back yard with his mother. She would tell him about what it was like before Reset and what happened on that fateful day in 1958 when everything changed.
Steve looked across the night sky. The moon, the stars, and the constellations were all in the proper position. A quick flash of silvery white filled Steve's vision and marked the beginning of Reset. The light from the moon and stars began to strobe and all the heavenly bodies slowly retraced their paths across the celestial sphere.
Soon the sun was rising in the west and moving eastward. The rapid flashing of the sun was too disturbing for most people. They became disoriented or even had seizures but Steve had learned to shade its affects with an old Cubs baseball cap. He kept his eyes focused on the ground or straight ahead.
The intermittent shadows of objects tracked the strobing sun until it sank below the eastern horizon. The moon and stars returned, took their proper positions in the sky, and the flashing stopped. Reset was over and the day began again.
"Hey, bub," said a heavy voice behind Steve. "You enjoy the show?"
Steve turned to see a tall, heavy man with a ruddy face. He was bleary-eyed and unsteady.
"Yeah," said Steve cautiously.
"You're not from around here, are you?" the man asked as he moved a bit closer.
"Nope. Just drove in."
The man put his hand on the Buick and said, "Nice car. How about we go for a ride?"
"No," Steve said flatly.
A hard, serious look swept across the man's face. "I don't think you get it, bub. Give me the keys."
They stared at each other for several seconds, then the man stepped forward and swung his fist at Steve's head. Steve sidestepped, grabbed the man's shoulder, and twisted. As the man lost his balance, Steve kicked him in the side of his knee. The big man landed on his back with a thud. Steve immediately put his knee on the man's chest.
Out of nowhere the business end of a shovel appeared at the man's throat. Ellen was holding it there while muttering obscenities through clinched teeth.
The man quickly lost his spirit and pleaded, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I had too much to drink. I'm sorry. I've got to get home. Please."
Ellen and Steve let him up and he wasted no time in limping down the street.
"You did good," Steve said to Ellen. "I think it would be best if I sleep in the car tonight."
Ellen gave her father a big smile. "Me too. You want the front or the back?"
The next day, as the Buick cruised along Highway 71, Ellen pulled out the map and said, "We're getting close."
"Yeah," said Steve. "Notice how the landscape has changed. This area is called the Texas Hill Country. Take a look at the Austin city map. See if you can find the address the old man told us to go to."
After a bit of searching Ellen said, "Got it. It should be easy to find. If we stay on this road and then..."
The radio blasted some static and the voice of a child said, "...the toboggan comes first. It's not going insidious without normal grief and polyps. Victim warrants can finalize torrents of scrub brushes but never compel tuition calluses. Phantom tuna fetch more per session than half the..."
As the broadcast faded Steve braked hard and pulled onto the shoulder. He quickly backed up for a hundred feet but the radio remained silent.
"That was the same little kid as before and he was spouting more gobbledygook," exclaimed Ellen.
"I've never heard of an Event that appears in different spots," said Steve, "and it disappeared so quickly. I don't get it."
Steve pulled back onto the road and headed into the city. After a short silence he said, "Maybe the people in Austin can answer our questions."
"Or at least tell us what's in this briefcase," said Ellen. "I'm dying to know."
At the address that the old man had given them Steve and Ellen were directed to a brick building by a guard at the entrance to the parking lot. Inside the building they explained to a secretary why they were there and then waited patiently on a worn leather couch for nearly an hour. Steve passed the time staring at the design in the floor tiles while Ellen quietly clutched the brown case close to her chest. Their trance was broken by a middle-aged, balding man in a white lab coat.
"Steve Conway? Ellen? Nice to meet you. I'm Dr. Feynman. Why don't we go back to my office to discuss this?"
Steve and Ellen followed Feynman to a small office with cluttered bookshelves, overflowing file cabinets, and a desk strewn with folders and papers.
"Now what's this all about?" asked Feynman as he settled into a wood desk chair.
"About ten days go," began Steve, "Ellen and I finished a carpentry job in Palm Springs and were hitching rides south when this old man in a shiny Buick picked us up. He didn't say much at first. He didn't even tell us his name. We didn't get very far when I noticed the old guy was sweating a lot and slumping to one side. He was sick. He was dying."
"When the man collapsed Dad was able to steer the car to the side of the road," continued Ellen. "We gave him some water but we couldn't do much else because we were out in the middle of nowhere. Before he died he handed us a piece of paper with your name and address on it and he begged us to bring this briefcase to you."
Ellen put the worn leather bag on Feynman's desk. The doctor stared at the case with a very puzzled look then reached beside his chair and pulled out an identical briefcase except that it was brand new.
Feynman looked from one to the other and softly said, "That's very odd."
"It's just a coincidence. Right?" said Ellen nervously.
"What's inside your's?" asked the doctor.
Steve shrugged. "It's locked and we didn't look."
Feynman tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "I wonder," he said as he pulled a key ring from a pocket. "I bought my bag three days ago. Let's see if the key for mine works on yours."
Doctor Feynman put a small key into the lock on the old bag and turned it. The lock opened. Without hesitation Feynman reached in and pulled out a thick hardcover book.
Steve and Ellen strained to read the title of the book but it was turned away from them. "What's it say?" asked Ellen.
"Fundamental Physical Constants of the Multiverse by Erik Tegmark," said Feynman. "I've never heard of it." The doctor opened the book and turned some of the first pages. He suddenly stopped and looked fixedly at one page. "This can't be. It doesn't make any sense. The copyright date is 2027."
"What's that mean?" demanded Ellen. "What's a copyright? What's 2027? Will somebody tell me what's going on?"
"It means this book was printed in the year 2027 which must be referring to the old system of counting days. The initial Reset was in 1958 and if we still used that old method we would now be in the year 1986, so this book was published in the future, which can't be true unless..."
Feynman opened a desk drawer and pulled out some strange-looking glasses with yellow lenses. He put on the glasses and was immediately shocked at what he saw. He quickly grabbed up the book and raced out of the room leaving Steve and Ellen to wonder what was happening.
Later the doctor returned with a huge smile on his face. "I'm so sorry I ran off like that but we had to make a copy of that book before it disappeared."
"Disappeared?" questioned Steve.
"Yes," said the doctor. "The book and the briefcase are Events and, as you know, they could vanish at any time. I'm sorry if I'm not making sense, but this is very exciting. You may have brought us the answers to all our questions about what happened in 1958 and what all of these Events really are.
"Every scientist at this lab is now pouring over the information in that book and trying to make sense of it. We'll be working through the night and maybe I can give you answers tomorrow morning. Do you have a place to stay? It doesn't matter. My house is just down the street. You're going to stay there. I won't have it any other way. Now let me walk you out. I want to get a look at this car of yours."
In the parking lot Ellen ran to the Buick and hopped up on the front fender.
"What do you think, Doc? Isn't she a beauty?"
"She certainly is," said Feynman as he once again put on the yellow-tinted glasses. "The car is an Event too. Here, have a look."
Steve put on the glasses and immediately noticed a glow around the car. "What is that?" asked Steve. He handed the glasses to Ellen.
"The lenses are polarized which means they have a special filter that blocks horizontally reflected light. All Events have that aura around them but under normal conditions we can't see it."
"So we drove from Southern California to Austin in an Event," said Ellen, shaking her head in disbelief. "I thought Events didn't move and that they didn't last very long."
"That's usually the case," said Feynman, "but we've documented exceptions like the fire tide that migrates along the coastline between Cape Town and Durban or the table in Finland that flies. As for lasting a long time, the sleeping dogs in Zhejiang Province in China have been around since the first Reset."
"That explains the little boy on the radio," said Steve.
"What's that?" asked Feynman.
Ellen handed him her notebook. "It's entry one hundred twelve and one hundred fourteen."
The doctor thumbed through the notebook and said, "This is very impressive, Ellen. May I keep this for a while? I'd like to make a copy of it."
"Sure," she said with a smile. "You know where to find us. We'll be at your place."
Dr. Feynman's home was a large Victorian-style house with a basement apartment where Ellen could comfortably ride out the Reset. After hot showers, a filling meal, and a long discussion about the day's events Steve and Ellen collapsed into soft beds with crisp, clean sheets.
The next day the two returned to the lab where the secretary immediately escorted them down a long hallway. Eventually they got to a large room packed with electronic equipment. Dr. Feynman was standing by an elderly man wearing headphones.
"There they are," exclaimed Feynman, "the stars of the hour. Come in, come in. I want you to meet Vince, our ham operator."
"Ham?" questioned Ellen.
"Amateur radio," said Feynman. "It's the main way we communicate with others since telephones are so unreliable. We can talk to people across the country or even in other countries if conditions are right."
"You must be the young lady with the notebook," said Vince as he removed his headphones. "I was very impressed with all of the information you gathered especially the last entries about the boy on the car radio. I may know who he is."
"Oh, really?" said Ellen.
"Yes, in the 1930s there was a child preacher named Little Joey Gort who headlined some tent revivals in the Midwest. Later he was the star of a radio show called Raising Ralphie. His catchphrase on the show was 'Off the cob, Bob'."
"That's what the kid on our car radio said," Ellen said.
"I looked it up," said Vince. "Here in Texas the Raising Ralphie show was broadcast by station KFLU 980 AM in Wichita Falls. But I can't tell you why he's talking mumbo jumbo. I guess it's just part of the weirdness of the Event."
"It is a weird one," said Steve. "But what about the book? Have you learned anything about it?"
"We've only begun to understand what's in the book," said Feynman, "but the little we've pieced together so far is astonishing. I wish I could express how grateful we are to you."
"We really didn't do much," Steve said. "But we are very curious about what it all means."
"Well, let's go to the conference room and I'll lay it all out for you."
After they settled around a large table Feynman said, "First of all the book is an Event from the future but it's probably not our future."
"I don't get it," said Ellen. "What do you mean?"
"We all grew up being told that there was only one universe and that it was infinite," said Feynman. "The multiverse theory in the book says that our universe is just one of many. Think of our universe as a soap bubble floating in the multiverse along with many other bubble universes. Each of these universes has its own set of physical laws. It may or may not have gravity or the laws of motion or the conservation of mass and energy. There could be totally different rules in the other universes...rules that we can't even imagine."
"That's mind-boggling," said Steve.
"It gets even wilder," Feynman said. "Sometimes these bubble universes collide. When that happens one of the two is usually destroyed. The surviving universe is the one with the most stable physical laws. In most ways ours would be considered a solid, steady universe. But as with soap bubbles sometimes the two universes collide and simply stick together. So all the Events around the world are a result of another universe merging with ours and the physical laws of the two combining. We believe that's what happened in 1958 and the resulting Reset is the biggest Event of them all."
"Are there people in the other universe?" asked Steve.
Feynman smiled. "Not likely but then again the book came from somewhere."
"I hope there's no one there," said Ellen. "I wouldn't want them to suffer Resets like we do."
The doctor paused for a moment then said, "I know we've just met but I'd like to offer the two of you a job."
"What kind of job?" asked Steve.
"What we do here is compile information about Events and Resets. We exchange data with other groups around the world and then analyze all of it in hopes of minimizing the negative effects. Ultimately we hope to understand all of it."
"So what would we do?"
"The same as what you have been doing. Travel around, record information about Events, and send us that data. Right now we need someone in the southeast. You would gather data then give it to one of our ham operators in the region. They'll relay it to us. What do you think?"
"It sounds interesting," said Steve, "but Ellen and I will have to talk it over."
"Sure," said Feynman. "I understand. Well, no matter what you decide you can stay at my place as long as you like. I would suggest you see some of the sights around Austin while you're here. You should check out the bat bridge on Congress Avenue, the capitol building where they still make decisions for the state, and if you head south on I-35 you can't miss the spinning prism Event. Some people have put lights up around it and at night it's beautiful."
The three walked out of the building and were headed across the parking lot when Ellen suddenly broke into a run and jumped into the Buick. As Steve and Feynman got to the car they saw that she was turning a dial on the radio.
"What are you doing, sweetheart?" asked Steve.
"Vince said that the boy's radio show was 980 AM," said Ellen. "I thought the kid might make more sense if we dialed the radio to his frequency."
"Smart thinking," said Feynman.
The three of them fell silent and stared at the radio, but nothing happened.
Steve looked at Ellen and noticed the excited expression on her face. "Honey, do you think we should take that job the doctor offered us?"
Ellen's face lit up. "Oh, yeah! That would be great, Dad. Can we?"
Steve turned to Feynman and smiled. "I guess you can sign us up, Doc."
Just then the radio squawked and the boy's voice said, "Praise the fjord! Can I get an almond from the congestion?"
Feynman laughed. "It sounds like Little Joey approves of your decision."